Spotlight: Do vegetarians live longer?

You've read the studies. Vegetarians have lower blood pressure, a reduced risk of colon cancer and are less likely to suffer heart disease and type 2 diabetes than meat eaters. But on the bigger question – do they live longer? – the jury is still out, with a large US study saying, yes they do, and a similar-sized British study saying, no they don't. And then there is the six-year study of nearly 270,000 men and women over 45 in Australia that finds little statistical difference.

If vegetarians do live longer, it may be because they're fitter overall, less likely to smoke, booze or be overweight, according to Dr Melody Ding, a senior research fellow at the University of Sydney, who spearheaded the study. "They were also less likely to report having heart disease or cancer at the start of the study," notes Ding, who describes herself as a "semi-vegetarian".

The 33-year-old cites meta-analysis indicating that vegetarians have a 29 per cent lower rate of heart disease and an 18 per cent reduced risk of cancer. While a growing body of evidence suggests there is no single "best" diet, one high in vegetables, fruit and fish does seem to be linked to long-living "blue zones" across the globe. This may explain the steady increase in vegetarianism in Australia, now hovering at just over 11 per cent of the population, or almost 2.1 million people, according to Roy Morgan Research.

Ben Saravia, a bodybuilder and personal trainer who eats a plant-based diet.

Ben Saravia, a bodybuilder and personal trainer who eats a plant-based diet.

Ben Saravia, a personal trainer at Sydney's City Gym, says he is living proof that a vegetarian diet can reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels. "I was the last guy to the party," laughs the 36-year-old. "I was a big meat eater – my dad is Argentinian – and was building muscle size at the gym, but I was like a flashy car with a rusty engine. Since my early 20s, I'd suffered from high blood pressure, which I was in denial about."

After switching to a plant-based diet a year ago, mainly for "ethical reasons", he found that his blood pressure and cholesterol levels dropped dramatically. "I've learnt how to cook healthy, tasty meals," says Saravia, who recently came fourth in a natural bodybuilding competition (one that doesn't involve image-enhancing drugs). "It takes a bit of preparation, but it's worth it."

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